SARASOTA COUNTY — The Sarasota metropolitan region once again figured among America’s 20 fastest-growing urban areas, cinching the 11th spot on the list by adding enough new residents last year to create another city the size of Venice, according to census figures released today.
In a population spike reminiscent of the pre-housing-bust days, the metro region defined by Sarasota and Manatee counties swelled by an estimated 20,123 people between mid-2014 and mid-2015, for a growth rate of 2.7 percent. That compares with a less than 1 percent growth rate four years ago, when the region ranked just 152nd among 381 U.S. metropolitan districts in terms of population gain.
The rebound is not isolated to this area.
People are moving in droves to the Sunshine State, fueling a substantial population boom reminiscent of the 1980s and ’90s that picks up speed with every annual U.S. Census update. Of the fastest-growing urban areas nationwide, six belong to Florida – the most of any state and the highest number anywhere since the 2010 decennial census.
Besides Sarasota, other Florida metros making this year’s list include Fort Myers, Naples, Punta Gorda, Orlando and The Villages, a retirement community north of Orlando.
The rankings evoke both pride and concern in a state whose many assets seem outflanked only by the looming challenges of accommodating its rapid growth.
“Hopefully people will wake up and realize that growth is coming and we need to plan for it, because a lot of what made Florida beautiful is being threatened right now,” said Rich Doty, GIS coordinator and research demographer at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
With growth comes challenges
Chief among the state’s most pressing, population-related issues, Doty said, is access to clean, abundant water. Experts have warned about Florida’s dwindling and deteriorating water supply for years – the U.S. Geological Survey raised alarms back in the 1960s – but the problem has worsened as more people enter the state and rising sea levels threaten the already fragile aquifers.
The swelling population also puts increased demands on transportation infrastructure, which communities have long managed through the use of impact fees assessed on new commercial and residential developments.
Elected officials across the state voted to lower those fees after the Great Recession, when new development all but stopped. Now that construction has rebounded, though, community advocates want to see the fees raised.
“Impact fees were done away with in essence, and now, of course, they’re saying we haven’t really recovered yet, but I think the numbers tell a different story,” said Bill Zoller, vice president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhoods. “We’re booming. We’re back where we were.”
Indeed, the city of Sarasota issued a record number of building permits in the most recently completed fiscal year, which ended in September. It permitted 8,402 projects valued at more than $330 million, municipal records show.
In downtown Sarasota alone, some 1,700 new apartment units are under construction, said Norm Gollub, downtown economic development coordinator for the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.
“A lot of people like the climate, and they want to get away from the brutal winters,” Gollub said. “But I don’t think we’re unusually fast when compared to other portions of Florida. I think we’re actually on par.”
Permitting activity increased last year in Manatee and Sarasota counties, too, with 23,764 and 30,330 new development projects, respectively, valued at nearly $939 million and $623 million.
In all, the Sarasota metro area had an estimated 768,918 residents as of last July. That’s compared to 748,795 people in July 2014.
As in previous years, Manatee County saw the majority of the metro region’s growth, welcoming 11,598 new residents to Sarasota County’s 8,525. Both counties had more deaths than births, so the growth was driven entirely by migration.
Most people who moved here hailed from other states, but an estimated 2,383 people came from outside the country. That’s about the same number of international migrants as the previous year, the census figures show.
But while international migration remained stable both in the Sarasota metro area and statewide, domestic migration saw a significant uptick, jumping 50 percent here and nearly 44 percent statewide.
“That tells us the economy is improving,” Doty said. “There are more jobs in the state now, and it’s more attractive for retirees. Also, the real estate markets are picking up back home so people are able to sell their houses and retire to Florida.”
While cities continue to attract many of these retirees, traffic congestion and a general lack of affordable housing have pushed others into the county, where thriving retirement communities continue to flourish.
The Villages, for example, led the nation’s metro growth the third year in a row. And the county in which the sprawling retirement community sits – Sumter – was the fastest-growing in the state and 16th fastest-growing in the nation.
Other fast-growing counties include St. Johns, Osceola and Lee. Manatee County placed fourth statewide; Sarasota County placed 19th.
The federal government updates the county and metro area population estimates annually to follow population changes since the last census, conducted in 2010. The data incorporates births, deaths, survey information and other data.
The numbers are interesting, Doty said, but they’re useless without context.
“It’s not just the numbers themselves. It’s what they mean; it’s the implications,” he said. “We have the information, but whether we make intelligent decisions to act on it is another question.”